Presidential debate season is officially over, and critical policy questions that directly impact millions of Americans remain unasked just 19 days before the election.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump met last night in Las Vegas, Nevada for the final presidential debate, which was likely the last chance for the candidates to discuss specific policy issues face-to-face before November 8. Just as in the previous two presidential debates this year, moderator Chris Wallace chose to focus questions on a handful of familiar topics. Even within the context of six pre-announced debate topics, Wallace could have asked questions on major policy issues that deserve thoughtful and substantive prime-time discussion from the presidential candidates, like affordable health care, climate change, or tax plans.
But that didn’t happen. When debate discussions did manage to turn to policy specifics on critical topics like reproductive rights or gun violence prevention, Wallace didn’t ask necessary follow-up questions or offer clarifications on the facts. (Prior to the debate, Wallace announced his intention to be a debate timekeeper rather than fact-checker.)
All in all, last night’s debate largely covered the same ground as the previous two debates, both in topics discussed and in tone. If any of the three debates had focused more aggressively on what’s truly at stake -- what voters have said they wanted asked, what people actually believe is most important for their own families and communities -- the questions in this debate cycle would have looked very different. And the answers could speak for themselves.
Let’s explore just how hard the moderators dropped the ball.
This year, the United States began the process of resettling its first climate refugees. A bipartisan group of top military experts warned that climate change presents a “strategically-significant risk to U.S. national security and international security.” While Clinton wants to build on President Obama’s climate change accomplishments, Trump wants to “cancel” the historic Paris climate agreement, “rescind” the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency -- and he’s even called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
Several tragic mass shootings -- including the single deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, at the LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, FL, in June -- have shaken the nation since the beginning of the election season. Gun deaths in the United States, both in instances of mass shootings and in more common day-to-day violence, vastly outnumber gun deaths in other Western democracies -- so much so that the American Medical Association has declared gun violence a public health crisis. And Americans are overwhelmingly ready for lawmakers to take action. Seventy-two percent of voters say gun policy is “very important” in determining their vote this year, and an astonishing 90 percent of voters -- representing both Democrats and Republicans -- think that strengthening background check requirements for firearm purchases is a good place to start, as does Clinton. Trump recently told the National Rifle Association -- which has endorsed him -- that he opposes expanding background checks.
Moderators failed to ask a single question about specific policies for gun violence prevention in the first two presidential debates, and they failed to ask a question about background check policies specifically in any debate. In the final debate, Wallace asked about gun policies in the context of the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision about the scope of the Second Amendment, but he failed to follow up when Trump skirted questions about the case and about his specific positions on several gun policies like his opposition to an assault weapons ban and his oft-repeated false claim that "gun-free" zones are responsible for public mass shootings. The entire exchange lasted just under five minutes.
Though seven in 10 Americans support legal abortion and one in three American women report having had an abortion procedure, states have enacted 288 anti-choice laws since 2010. These laws are creating a crisis by preventing women from low-income families -- many already parents who are struggling to keep families afloat -- from receiving the health care services they need. Some evidence even suggests greater numbers of women are contemplating dangerous self-induced abortions due to a lack of access to care. Trump has espoused support for these types of restrictive laws, and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), wants to “send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history.”
But moderators did not ask a question about the candidates’ stances on reproductive rights until the final debate -- when Chris Wallace asked about Roe v. Wade. Again, Trump repeatedly lied about abortion policy, and the misinformation was left hanging as Wallace pivoted to a new topic after about five minutes of discussion.
How about tax policies? Tax rates are a critical issue that directly affect all Americans, and the candidates’ respective tax policy proposals could not differ more. Clinton’s plan would benefit low- and middle-income families most and hike tax rates only for the wealthiest earners and for corporations. Trump’s plan has been called “a multitrillion-dollar gift to the rich” that “screws the middle class,” and has been panned even by conservative economists and The Wall Street Journal. One analysis concluded that Clinton’s plan “trims deficits,” while Trump’s plan could add $6.2 trillion to the national debt. These numbers directly impact the short-term and long-term financial health of families and communities, and 84 percent of voters say the economy is “very important” in deciding their vote in 2016.
Substantive questions about the candidates’ specific tax plans were missing from the debates, though Trump still managed to lie about his tax proposals on several occasions. When the candidates mentioned their tax plans briefly in the final debate when asked about the economy, Wallace again lived up to his promise not to fact-check.
A record number of anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year, and LGBT students face significantly more violence than their peers, but the debates did not include a single question about policy positions related to LGBT equality.
About 70 percent of today’s college graduates leave school with student loans, and more than 43 million Americans currently have student debt. This economic squeeze is changing how Americans plan their families, buy homes, and spend their money. Clinton has responded by making college affordability a signature issue of her campaign, while Trump’s newly described plan could “explode the student debt crisis.” Neither candidate was asked to address this issue either.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- we account for 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Inmate organizers recently launched what could be the nation’s largest prison strike to draw attention to deplorable prison conditions. The majority of Americans want to see changes to a federal prison system they believe is “too large, too expensive, and too often incarcerating the wrong people.” Moderators didn’t ask about criminal justice reform policies at all.
The presidential debates instead largely focused on statements made on the campaign trail, whichever offensive comments Trump had made most recently, and -- again, always -- Hillary Clinton’s email use as secretary of state. Viewers might now know a lot about these topics -- or at least what each candidate has to say about them -- while still having very little information on the candidates’ starkly contrasting policy positions on issues with direct and immediate consequences to citizens’ daily lives.
Americans relied on moderators to raise the questions they think about every day, to help them understand how the next president can help ensure that their families are safe, secure, and set up to thrive. It’s a shame the debates did not deliver.